Sunday, May 01, 2011

Keep It Simple, Sell!

Helen DeWitt is a wonderful and brilliant writer. Her book "The Last Samurai" introduced me to the Japanese word "jinsai" which quickly became my nom du jeu (and is part of this blog's URL!)

This post she wrote discusses notable classical composers writing simple pieces.
"It was Beethoven who felt that the desires of the amateur -- or even of the average professional -- were not worth attending to except when he wrote an easy piece to make a little extra money."
My friend Sid Luscious would say "Beethoven is a dope. Making 'a little extra money' is the whole point! Keep It Simple, Sell!"

I'd agree with keeping it simple, but for different reasons.

For most of my artistic career, I have made a conscious effort to write simple songs: no fancy chords, no tricky rhythms, no odd time signatures, and no compositions that rely on technical virtuosity.

Some of this is motivated by a Sid Luscious-esque desire to "sell out". Because that is part of how you make pop songs that endure - keeping it simple. "Simple" songs are more frequently covered, and can be picked up by people just starting to play instruments.

Some of my pop song simplicity is motivated by my own limitations. My instrumental technical skills are modest. I have relatively short fingers for a guitar player or keyboardist, and this affects my ability to conjure some of the more elaborate chords and parts from my instruments. I compensate by using computers, either to play the difficult parts or to allow me to combine 2 simple parts or chords to create a more complex one.

But most of it is the challenge and discipline of staying simple. Simple songs are difficult to write. It is easy to keep a listener from being bored if you are constantly surprising them with new parts and tricky rhythms. It is more difficult to write a short melody that is both instantly memorable and holds up to repeated listening. 

For my instrumental/electronic/ambient work, simplicity goes by the wayside, or is at least less overt. Instrumental music by definition has no vocals, and this allows people to listen to the music differently and deeper. This in turn requires instrumental composition to be more rigorous, layered, and tricky.

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